Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Accommodationist Wars: Winston vs Harris


Robert Winston is a stem cell researcher with a strong interest in science education. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist who writes about the conflict between science and religion.

They recently debated whether science and religion are compatible [Is there any place for religious faith in science?].

This is part of the accommodationist wars. Winston argues that there is no conflict between one's personal religious belief and science.

accommodationist

one who adapts to or compromises with an opposing view

Mirriam-Webster Dictionary
This "war" is supposed to be about whether science and religion are in conflict or whether they are compatible. If they are compatible then it's perfectly reasonable for someone to support scientific reasoning as an important and valid way of knowing while, at the same time, believing the major tenets of some religion. However, as you can see in this debate, the accommodationist position is often confused. It's easy for them to forget the question and stray into other issues that upset them.

One of the things that upset accommodationists isn't the real question but whether it is polite or civil to "attack" the beliefs of legitimate scientists.

As Robert Winston puts it ...
You quote Collins in your book: "as I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful waterfall hundreds of feet high, I knew the search [for God] was over." You write, in commentary, "it is astounding that this passage was written with the intent of demonstrating the compatibility of faith and reason". But he is making his own personal judgement about his circumstances, not preaching to the world. Your writing is lovely, funny, but I don't think the denigration of a serious scientist like Collins does a lot of good. We should be very careful about criticising other scientists, except when their science is clearly at fault.
The problem for Winston is not really whether the scientific approach is consistent with evangelical Christianity but whether it is appropriate to even raise the issue because it "denigrates" compatibilists. As expected, Winston takes a few swaps at the attitude of the New Atheists.

The quotation from Winston also highlights another aspect of the accommodationist wars. Winston focuses on the ability of Francis Collins to "do science" as though that's what it's all about. ("But do his views detract from the outstanding work [Collins] has done?") This is not what the debate is about. As Sam Harris points out, there are Young Earth Creationists who do science but nobody would argue that Young Earth Creationism and science are compatible. Similarly, I have argued that there are scientists who believe in homeopathy and astrology but that does not make those subjects compatible with science.

The debate is about whether the principles of scientific reasoning are in conflict with the beliefs held by people of faith or whether the scientific way of knowing is compatible with another way of knowing that lies outside of science.

Whether one side or the other is being rude doesn't address the question. Whether a scientist can still pipette accurately while believing in silly things isn't relevant.

We need to keep the accommodationists focused on the main point and not on strawmen that have no bearing on the question. It's hard for us to do that but we need to keep trying.


[Photo Credit: David Levene: guardian.co.uk]

[Hat Tip: RichardDawkins.net]

15 comments :

  1. Whether a scientist can still pipette accurately while believing in silly things isn't relevant.

    That's true - a major reason there are so many religious scientists is that a most of the everyday scientific practice never puts in you in a situation of conflict with whatever religious beliefs you have.

    And for many people, it is entirely possible that such a moment will never come in their whole career.

    However, Collins is not one of them - he is a coauthor on a number of papers that either have serious theological implications or heavily use concepts that have such implications.

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  2. Larry, you say "The debate is about whether the principles of scientific reasoning are in conflict with the beliefs held by people of faith or whether the scientific way of knowing is compatible with another way of knowing that lies outside of science."

    I tend to agree with you about what you think of as the truth of the material claims suggested by religious statements, I disagree with you that it's necessary to argue about people's beliefs.

    I know that's a subtle point, but does it really matter to you what I believe--even though in this case I actually believe what you believe? Why should it? Our intellectual transactions don't occur in my head--where my beliefs are. They occur in the world of professed scientific claims. If you agree with the methodology I used to support my scientific claims, why does it bother you that I may have other things going on in my mind?

    Can't we communicate about science even though we may not hold the same beliefs about religion--or politics, or food, or wine, or art, or economics, etc.?

    Your answer, I'm sure, is that religious beliefs are in fact scientific claims, i.e., claims about the nature of the world, whereas these other things are either purely subjective issues (really only in my head or your head) or matters that we have trouble settling scientifically.

    But I think you will have trouble getting a religious scientist to make a claim based on his/her religion that is in conflict with scientific results. He or she may use the language we are accustomed to using when talking about the real world. But if you listen carefully that's not what the person is talking about.

    So i agree with Winston. It's not necessary to attack religious scientists for their religious views. In fact it's just as rude to do that as it would be to attack them for their taste in wine. Wait until they say something that can be verified or falsified scientifically. Then it makes sense to engage them.

    But with people like Francis Collins (whose religious view I find completely incomprehensible) it is unlikely that you will find yourself in a scientific debate that resulted from his religious views. So until that happens, I say, give him (and others like him) a break.

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  3. Also, I like how they got in some top scientists to write that book. I really enjoyed this review:
    http://www.amazon.com/review/R3C6OW6584WDYG

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  4. Sam Harris:
    I mean no special criticism of Rees – I think he's someone who believes, perhaps as you do, that it is pragmatic to try to teach science wherever people are willing to listen, and not criticise faith and try to allay the points of conflict as much as possible. That's a political position which I think is in the end unsustainable.

    Since you apparently agree that this is "in the end unsustainable" it would be nice if you could expand on that point

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  5. Blue says,

    So i agree with Winston. It's not necessary to attack religious scientists for their religious views. In fact it's just as rude to do that as it would be to attack them for their taste in wine. Wait until they say something that can be verified or falsified scientifically. Then it makes sense to engage them.

    I think you're making the common error of thinking that my debate is about being a scientist as opposed to a debate about the conflict between rationalism and superstition. My goal is NOT to "protect" science, it's to challenge religion. In these debates I'm acting more as a skeptic and an atheist than a scientist. I'm just as happy to debate the religious views of philosophers, lawyers, or politicians. Why do the religious views of scientists deserve special protection?

    I'm interested in creating a society where people value evidence and rationalism instead of superstition and tradition. Part of that debate involves science vs religion but even in that context I define science very broadly. Thus, I'm convinced that most religions promote beliefs that conflict with the scientific way of knowing.

    I don't run around campus asking every scientist whether they believe in God then attack them for that belief. But if they promote the idea that science and religion are perfectly compatible then I'll address that claim.

    Do you really think it's rude of me to debate the views of Ken Miller, Francis Collins, Michael Behe, and other scientists who publicly promote religion and how it doesn't conflict with science? Why is that rude? I really don't understand your position.

    Are they also being rude when they publish books attacking MY worldview? For example, in The Language of God Francis Clollins says (p. 165),

    If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove not disprove His existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a beleif system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason.

    I don't think he is being rude even though people like me are the object of his criticism. Do you think Collins is being rude?

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  6. anon ToE says,

    Since you apparently agree that this is "in the end unsustainable" it would be nice if you could expand on that point.

    I never brought up religion in my introductory biochemistry or molecular biology courses. I think it's quite possible to teach science without ever mentioning God. It's even tactically wise, especially in those places where religion is part of the dominant culture.

    However, in the long run we're interested in teaching critical thinking and teaching how science is the most important way of knowing. (Possibly the only one.) In the long run you simply can't ignore that big gray thing in the middle of the room and pretend it doesn't exist.

    If you teach students (and the general public) that there's no conflict between science and religion then you better believe that's the truth. Otherwise you are being hypocritical at best, and lying at worst.

    If you don't believe that science and religion are compatible then you have a duty to teach that if you are really interested in teaching students how to think critically. This also applies to educating the general public. You may want to be careful about choosing the right time and place to speak out but ignoring the elephant is an unsustainable position in the long run.

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  7. Larry Moran writes:

    In the long run you simply can't ignore that big gray thing in the middle of the room

    Nor the (one hopes) big gray thing between one's ears.

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  8. Prof. Moran thanks for your answer. I simply think that the relation between religion and science is more complicated than usually claimed and that you therefore also need good reasons to claim that these are not compatible.

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  9. anon ToE says,

    I simply think that the relation between religion and science is more complicated than usually claimed and that you therefore also need good reasons to claim that these are not compatible.

    As you know, it's very difficult to prove a negative. In this case the best I can do is consider every major religious claim to see if it meets the compatibility criterion. So far, none have been convincing.

    Do you have an example of a significant religious claim that distinguishes religious belief from atheism and is compatible with science?

    The only one I know of is strict Deism. However, it suffers from the unfortunate drawback that nobody believes it.

    Pity.

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  10. @Blue It's not necessary to attack religious scientists for their religious views. In fact it's just as rude to do that as it would be to attack them for their taste in wine. Wait until they say something that can be verified or falsified scientifically. Then it makes sense to engage them.

    Francis Collins claims in his book "The Language of God" that:

    But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.

    This sounds like a claim that is in the remit of science.

    Is it rude to challenge him on this ?

    Given his position as the head of NIH, do you not think that there is some risk that research into a neurological basis of morality could be shut down because Francis Collins has an invisible friend that gave us a sense of spirituality and moral law ?

    In general couldn't the religious beliefs (i.e. claims about reality made with no evidence) of scientists seriously constrain the scope of scientific inquiry ?

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  11. Lary Moran said,

    Do you have an example of a significant religious claim that distinguishes religious belief from atheism and is compatible with science?

    I guess the claim of an afterlife or rebirth or karma? Or if the religion would simply state that whenever a religious claim was contradicting the scientific claim the scientific claim would take precedent. But I have to admit that I don't know what you mean by “compatibility criterion“.

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  12. Larry says, "In these debates I'm acting more as a skeptic and an atheist than a scientist."

    It seems to me that debating religion with a person of faith is a dead end. (And again, I'm not a person of faith and find it strange to be on this side of the debate.)

    The bottom line for people of faith is that faith is not debatable. That's why it's called faith rather than logic, evidence, of facts.

    If someone, for whatever reason, has a faith-based belief, there's not much to say—other than that you find having such beliefs strange.

    You say you want to defend the scientific approach to knowing. "I'm interested in creating a society where people value evidence and rationalism instead of superstition and tradition. … Thus, I'm convinced that most religions promote beliefs that conflict with the scientific way of knowing."

    I agree with you that religion conflicts with the scientific way of knowing. And I also agree with you that the scientific way of knowing is the best we have. I think you can (and do) make a good case for that.

    But given all that, I don't think it's appropriate to insult people who disagree with that position. Debate is one thing; calling them fools is another. That's where I would draw the line.

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  13. @Blue But given all that, I don't think it's appropriate to insult people who disagree with that position. Debate is one thing; calling them fools is another. That's where I would draw the line.

    Disagreement is not insult.

    People deserve respect, ideas and institutions do not.

    To the extent that a person hides behind an irrational idea and uses the armour of faith to shield himself from rational discourse then of course disagreement will be construed as insult.

    But this is a problem for the person making the claim and not the one rebutting it and can not be used as an excuse to limit criticism of bad ideas.

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  14. Think about it like this. Beliefs held on faith are similar to axioms. As long as they don't contradict what is known there is nothing to debate about them.

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